Today is the winter solstice: the least amount of light, the most amount of dark.
We don’t like dark terribly much as a species, any more than we like waiting. The winter solstice is a bit of a relief, then, because at least we know this is as bad as it gets. Even if it gets colder and it sleets from now through March, at least there will be a little more light at the edges of the day to see us through it.
(Perhaps if we were nocturnal, we’d have this same sense of relief at the summer solstice? We might be panting with relief in our stuffy underground burrow at the thought that the light will at least stop growing longer, forcing us these long dull listless days without a respite from the searching sun.)
The word “solstice” comes from two Latin roots: “Sol” (sun) and “stit-” (stationary). People who had been tracking the sunset’s journey south along the horizon were watching for the time when it would pause—pause, and then reverse its track. The solstice is that noticeable pause.
Like a deep breath that has been let out. The empty feeling in the lungs, like a rattle in the ribcage, the belly like a bag pressed flat. A sense of desolation, they say, but also a definite glow of opportunity. Possibility. The inhale is inevitable.
Soon (not too soon, don’t get ahead of yourself!) but soon, it will be spring. There is, at least, the reassurance that the mechanism hasn’t broken; the sun isn’t going to decline indefinitely. The gears are still turning, or the sun is still at its proper axial tilt and the orbit is stable, or what have you. The clock is still ticking.
But all that future possibility is to come. For now, we’re in the pause.
And we may as well enjoy the dark, for now. The reassurance that it is all temporary, that the breath will be let back in momentarily, should all give us a chance to befriend the dark, even if we wouldn’t have chosen it.
Years ago I heard a quote I can’t now find about a room used for scientific experiments that needed to be kept completely, totally dark. Even a bit of light from a door opened too soon would ruin it. Signs posted on the door warned people to keep the dark in.
What phrasing: not keep the light out, but keep the dark in. It belongs to itself. Let it be. It’s not just the absence of light, although it’s hard not to see it this way.
It’s become a pattern here for me to talk about time and the seasons as heavyhanded metaphors for phases of life. Maybe it’s my brand, who knows. But in this construct, solstices are times of change when the change can’t be seen yet. The winter solstice in our lives is the time when things have been getting worse, and darker, and it’s become harder to see a way out of hard times (see? I cannot untangle myself from disliking dark). The solstice is the moment where we notice it’s stopped, and it will turn around.
But because human lives and human circumstances are not tied to the axial tilt of the Earth, there’s no telling when things start getting better. The solstice pause is invisible, isn’t it, when it’s in your life? It’s like hitting rock bottom, which can only be confirmed when you’ve started to rise again.
On this note, I heard an interesting tidbit from Alexander Shaia about the timing of Christmas. It’s not smack-dab on the winter solstice; it’s three or four days later. Three or four days is enough time to start really noticing that the sun is scooting the other way now, back up the horizon, which means the days are just a tiny bit longer. And that’s when Christmas happens: when you can actually see the beginnings of the increase of light.
The solstice is the mysterious point of stillness before change. We can’t always notice it when it’s there; it’s only in the rearview mirror, when things are really beginning to shift, that we can pinpoint the longest night of the year. Meanwhile, that moment of deepest darkness, which marked the beginning of the increase of the light, was set silently, imperceptibly, into motion.
If the days are dark for you right now, I wish you the best. I hope the reversal is coming soon.